The game had been over for at least 20 minutes, plenty of time for the harsh reality to set in for North Carolina's Tyler Zeller.
But the shot kept replaying itself in Zeller's head -- the three-pointer that Kentucky freshman Brandon Knight lofted with a defender's hand in his face and unfathomable pressure on his shoulders. With the score knotted at 67, Knight's jump shot swished through the net with less than three minutes remaining, serving as one final kick in the gut to a Tar Heels team that had battled from behind all night.
Fourth-seeded Kentucky rolled on from there, toppling No. 2 seed North Carolina, 76-69, to claim the NCAA Tournament's East region title and, with it, its first trip to the Final Four since 1998.
Knight, the Wildcats' preternaturally gifted 19-year-old point guard, was the indisputable star of the game, leading all players with 22 points (including five three-pointers) while adding seven rebounds, four assists and three steals.
The dazzling performance came 48 hours after Knight hit the game-winner that vanquished the tournament's overall No. 1 seed, Ohio State, and one week after he hit the game-winner that spared Kentucky a first-round ouster by Princeton.
North Carolina (29-8) wasn't without outstanding freshmen. In fact, without the late-season heroics of forward Harrison Barnes and point guard Kendall Marshall, both first-year players, the Tar Heels surely wouldn't have reached the tournament's round of eight just one year after failing to even qualify for March Madness.
Sunday against Kentucky, Barnes scored eight consecutive points with roughly five minutes remaining to put a serious scare in the Wildcats, pulling the Tar Heels within 65-63 after they had trailed by 11 in the second half.
But Kentucky answered -- first with Knight's three-pointer and then with DeAndre Liggins' resounding block of a jump shot by Marshall that would have put North Carolina ahead with less than a minute to play. Liggins, Kentucky's hard-nosed defender, added a three-pointer for good measure and Knight supplied the finishing touches from the free-throw line.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams and his players had nothing but praise and admiration for Knight after the game.
"We get it tied, and Brandon makes the huge three right in front of their bench," said an emotional Williams, 60, who came up limping after a late-game collision with Knight. "We get it back to [a one-point deficit], they made a big-time block on Kendall. You just have to congratulate them."
Added Zeller, who led North Carolina with 21 points: "The shot Brandon hit, I still picture it in my mind. A fantastic job. Dex [Strickland] did a great job all night shadowing him, chasing him around. And, I mean, he still made shots. I think you have to give them credit."
Kentucky (29-8), which is seeking its eighth NCAA championship, will face Connecticut in Saturday's second semifinal in Houston, while 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth, which stunned No. 1 seed Kansas earlier Sunday, will face off against No. 8 seed Butler in the first semifinal.